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That's what Ben Franklin famously thought the turkey should be. It was, he wrote, "a much more respectable bird" than the eagle, which he considered to be "a rank coward". He thought the turkey to be "a true original native of America, and a bird of courage" that would willingly attack any grenadier of the British Guards who dared to invade his farm.

He was correct in thinking that the Tom turkey would aggressively protect itself, as many a stroller or golfer who has come too close to one can attest. But he was wrong in thinking that turkeys were native to the United States, although today they can be found in every state except Alaska. They were first encountered by 16th-century European explorers arriving in Mexico, where turkeys had been bred for centuries, making it one of only two birds native to the Americas (the other being the Muscovy duck). Imported to Europe and the Middle East, the birds reminded traders of the African guinea fowl that came to them along trade routes passing through Turkey, and thus came to be called "Turkey birds."

Although there is no reliable evidence that Pilgrims and Wampanoags ate turkey in November of 1621 (the Wampanoags provided deer meat, the Pilgrims brought "fowl", which were probably ducks or geese), turkeys were plentiful in the wild and a convenient addition to the traditional harvest feast tradition that the Pilgrims brought with them from Europe.

The bird that may be gracing your Thanksgiving table next week is a descendant of a millennia-long heritage, as fossil records from up to five-million years ago confirm. Although most consumer turkeys are farm-bred and raised, turkeys in the wild, as Franklin declared, are resourceful and agile. They can fly for short distances, with a flank speed of 50 miles an hour on the wing as they seek overnight roosts in trees. On the ground, they can run at 25 miles an hour when danger is sensed. They use their signature gobbles, that can be loud enough to be heard over a mile, to warn others of a threat; otherwise, the communicate with a series of clucks and purring noises. The poults that emerge from the hens' clutches of as many as eighteen eggs are up and foraging on their own within twenty-four hours and mature quickly, abandoned by the hen within a few days.

Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday of thanksgiving in 1863 as the Civil War neared its end, and presidents after him were presented with a turkey as a gift from the nation to mark the day. It wasn't until 1989 that President George H.W. Bush issued the first presidential pardon saving at least one turkey from the oven, a tradition observed by every president since.

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